Plenty of Questions Out West

After Friday’s look at the East, here’s a look at the biggest issue facing teams in the Western Conference as we enter the 2008-09 season. Again, teams are listed alphabetically within their division.

Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks: There is buzz again about hockey in Chicago, maybe for the first time in 15 years. The Blackhawks has a lot of young talent including last year’s top two rookies, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. They added goalie Cristobal Huet and high profile defenseman Brian Campbell in the off-season. The biggest issue facing the Blackhawks right now is whether or not fans are expecting too much too soon. If any of the young players suffers a sophomore slump or the team gets off to a slow start, fans should not lose hope. The Hawks are on the right track and should be in the fight for a playoff spot. Their young players may need an extra season to reach the next level.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets are made a lot of changes in the offseason in search of the first ever playoff berth in franchise history. Depth at the center position remains an issue for Columbus with ex-Flyers pivot R.J. Umberger the top candidate for the number one line. Umberger has not established himself as an elite center but scorers like Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius on his wings, this is as good a chance as the 26-year-old Pittsburgh native will get.

Detroit Red Wings: The rich only seem to get richer as the defending Stanley Cup champs added sniper Marian Hossa to an already deep and potent lineup. Avoiding the Stanley Cup hangover is probably the biggest obstacle facing the Wings who hope they won’t lose the razor’s edge in effort that can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Nashville Predators: You have to give credit to GM David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz. Every offseason, the Preds endure turmoil, slashed budgets and an exodus of talent, yet they have reached the playoffs for four consecutive seasons. This year, Nashville again has to overcome off-ice issues like the loss of Alexander Radulov to the new Russian league and the bankruptcy of the second largest shareholder of the current ownership group. How much more can this young team take and still make the playoffs?

St.Louis Blues: The Blues are still in the midst of rebuilding with youth but they suffered a huge blow when they lost defenseman Erik Johnson for the season with torn knee ligaments. Johnson, 20, was the top overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, and is the cornerstone of the new Blues. His loss will set the team back emotionally and on the ice and this youthful team must overcome their inexperience and Johnson’s loss to return to respectability.

Northwest Division

Calgary Flames: Calgary has a strong goaltender in Miikka Kiprusoff and a strong defense. They also have a strong top scoring line. Still, for this team to be a true Cup contender, the Flames will need goals from forwards other than Jarome Iginla, Mike Cammalleri and Daymond Langkow. Players like Todd Bertuzzi, Rene Bourque and Tyler Moss must come through or the Flames will once again be on the outside looking in come May.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche made a run to the second round of the playoffs largely on the strength of the goaltending of Jose Theodore. Theodore is gone now, leaving the netminding in the Mile High City to Peter Budaj. A year ago, Budaj began the season as the starter only to lose his job due to inconsistent play. Unless Budaj regains his form of 2006-07, it could be a long season for the Avs.

Edmonton Oilers: Edmonton’s late season surge landed them just short of a playoff berth last season. The Oilers have a young team and they will need to avoid the sophomore jinx and have their talented but green players continue their development for Edmonton to get back to the NHL’s postseason party. Are Sam Gagner, Tom Gilbert, Robert Nilsson, Kyle Brodziak and Andrew Cogliano for real over the course of an 80-game schedule or were they just on a late-season hot streak?

Minnesota Wild: There are a number of issues facing the Wild, including scoring depth and size on defense. But perhaps their biggest issue is to get star forward Marian Gaborik signed to a long-term contract extension. If Gaborik’s still without a deal and negotiations drag, it could become a major distraction for Jacques Lemaire’s club. Minnesota relies heavily on Gaborik’s goal scoring (42 a year ago in 77 games) and if he’s off his game, it will be very costly for the Wild.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks have a franchise goalie in Roberto Luongo but they still aren’t sure where the goals are coming from. Up front, Vancouver doesn’t really scare anybody. Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison are gone. Mats Sundin never came west despite the Canucks’ huge offer and so it looks like another year of struggling to put the puck in the net in the Pacific Northwest.

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks had trouble scoring last season, ranking 28th in the league in goals. Having Teemu Selanne from the beginning of the season should help, but only Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Chris Kunitz topped 20 tallies last season and secondary scoring has to be found if the Ducks are going to make a serious run at their second Cup in three years.

Dallas Stars: The Stars are a solid team from top to bottom. A return to health of veteran defenseman Sergei Zubov should help. The potential spoiler for Dallas may be newly signed forward, Sean Avery, the NHL’s most hated player. Avery can be a difference maker on the ice but he tends to wear out his welcome with his antics, eventually angering teammates and opponents alike. If Avery becomes a distraction, the Stars could pay the price.

Los Angeles Kings: With the Kings, the biggest question may be where to begin? The team is full of unproven but talented young players. The biggest issue remains who will play goal for Los Angeles. Jason LaBarbera will start the season off as number one with Erik Ersberg as the backup and Jonathan Bernier waiting in the wings. None of those three can be considered an established NHL starting goalie and unless somebody steps forward, the Kings are in for another long, rebuilding season.

Phoenix Coyotes: The Coyotes took a jump forward last season after the addition of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. The big trade to acquire Olli Jokinen cost Phoenix veteran defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. The Desert Dogs will be counting on younger defensemen to fill the void and unless they step up, it will be difficult for Gretzky’s young team to take the next step and return to the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks: San Jose has been a favorite pick to win the Stanley Cup each year since the lockout and each year, they followed up a strong regular season with an early exit from Lord Stanley’s annual dance. Can Joe Thornton finally prove himself a leader worthy of taking a team to the promised land? Critics say Thornton fails to raise his game to the next level in the postseason and stays away from high traffic areas in front of the goal. This may be his last chance to prove his critics wrong, at least with this deep Sharks’ team.

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